Those who served… Part One

Those who served… Part One

A man walks into a pub.  He buys a pint for threepence ha’penny.  Two weeks later the barmaid and her boss are summoned to court to face the consequences. The date was 23rd June 1916.  The pub was the Hare and Hounds in Maghull.  The publican was a 44 year old widow called Jane Cookson, and the barmaid was her daughter Mary. The man who bought the pint was William Pitchford. The illegal transaction took place at about 2pm, during normal licensing hours.  William was not drunk or under-age.  He was a soldier. Mary and Jane Cookson were accused of selling beer to “a member of His Majesty’s forces who was then undergoing hospital treatment.”

On the day they were called to appear before Ormskirk magistrates, the same court sentenced another woman from Maghull, Maria Beckett of Foxhouse Lane, to three months in prison.  Maria’s offence, according to the entry in Ormskirk Petty Sessions register:

did unlawfully give to one Thomas Kimblin a member of His Majesty’s forces who was then undergoing hospital treatment an intoxicant to wit stout.”

All three women had committed an offence under Section 40A of the Defence of the Realm Act. But if these women hadn’t committed their crimes they and the men they served would have left no mark in history.  We would not know that William Pitchford, Thomas Kimblin and John Darling were patients at Moss Side Military Hospital in Maghull, which pioneered the treatment of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but they called Shell Shock.

There are a million memorials to those who lost their lives, nothing for those who lost their minds.

So… Cheers Ladies!


79180 Lance Corporal William Pitchford

The Tunneller

William Pitchford was a Yorkshire miner.  His dad was a Yorkshire miner, as were least four of his six brothers. He was born in 1870 in the village of Altofts, five miles from Wakefield, the third child of Thomas and Annie Pitchford.  By 1891 the Pitchford parents had seven sons, three daughters, and a lodger squeezed into their house, and William had probably been working down the pit since he was fourteen. On Boxing Day 1895 he married Margaret Ann Hindley, the daughter of a foreman at a Wakefield rope works.  The couple moved to Wakefield, and by 1911 Margaret Ann had given birth to three children, only one of whom was still alive.

The Pitchfords’ first daughter Brenda was born in December 1896 and died in early 1911.  Their second daughter arrived in 1901 and was named May, after the month of her birth, but died before the year was out.  The death of a child was much more common in those days, of course, but after losing one daughter in infancy and another at the age of fourteen must have been difficult.  William was clearly a man who had known more than his fair share of mental suffering even before the war broke out in July 1914.

He was also a man who had managed to get out of the pit.  By the turn of the century he was working for Prudential Insurance in Wakefield.  When the war started, he was an insurance man in his mid-forties, too old to have been called up in ordinary circumstances. But he also had twenty years’ experience of working in a mine.

He left behind his wife and nine year old Norman, his one surviving child, and eventually went back to working underground beneath the battlefields of the Somme. The war had come to a stalemate in France.  The Allied Forces and the Germans faced each other across no-man’s land from heavily fortified trenches and neither side could make any progress without massive loss of life.  A new tactic was developed.  Instead of attacking across no-man’s land and being mown down by machine guns, why not tunnel under the enemy lines and blow them up from below?

Experienced miners were recruited to form Tunnelling Companies. The first Royal Engineers Tunnelling Company was formed in February 1915 but according to the William’s military papers he served from September 1914.  So perhaps when he first volunteered he had no idea he would eventually be posted underground.

He joined the 184th Tunnelling Company, which was formed in Rouen in October 1915, and immediately went to the Somme area to work at Maricourt, but by spring 1916 had moved to Vimy.

The tunnellers, nicknamed the Moles, had to work in cramped conditions, by candlelight, and in complete silence.  While they were digging towards the enemy lines, the Germans were doing the same in the opposite direction.  They could be tunnelling just a few feet beside or beneath you, and if they heard you, they would blow up the tunnel and bring the ground crashing down upon you. This was very stressful work, and William Pitchford had been doing it for almost six months when he was admitted to No. 19 casualty clearing station on 25th March 1916 with an ailment described in his records as “Not yet diagnosed mental.”

The same medical record says he’d been “with Field Force” for a year and three months, which means he was at the front even before he joined 184th Tunnelling Company in October of the previous year.

What triggered his hospitalisation?  His company was in Arras in March and there is no mention in Major J Richard Gwyther’s entry into the company War Diary of any specific incident that might have caused William’s illness, and no mention of him being admitted to hospital.

Did Major Gwyther just fail to record William’s crisis in March or was the stricken soldier attached to another company at the time?  As the 184th Tunnel Company had stayed in Arras between March and May is it significant that Pitchford was treated at No. 18 casualty clearing station whilst the company War Diary suggests another member of the company (Etheridge) was treated in No. 43 clearing station?

Whatever caused William Pitchford’s trauma, and wherever it happened, we can only guess at the horrors that led to him ending up in Moss Side Hospital in June.  But after everything he’d been through who could begrudge him sneaking out to the Hare and Hounds for quick pint? Those running the hospital certainly could.  In the Moss Side committee minutes’ book the Medical Superintendent reported in January 1915:

“The patients have on one occasion been given stout.  I should be glad if the committee would authorise the continuance of this extra.”

The request was refused. At Maria Beckett’s trial on July 7th 1916 one of the medical officers at the hospital, a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, told the court that

“Drink was the worst thing they [the patients] could have whilst under hospital treatment.”

The Moss Side patients were given special uniforms that made them instantly recognisable walking along the country lanes of Maghull.  They weren’t allowed out unaccompanied, and they weren’t allowed to drink.

William covered his hospital clothes with a coat buttoned up to the chin, put a pair of military puttees on his legs, and somehow slipped out of the hospital.  He would have been in the Hare and Hounds after a brisk fifteen minute walk.

At about 2.10 pm Sergeant Kelly from Maghull police station entered the pub and saw William sat alone at a table with his half-finished pint.  In 1916 every policeman in the Lancashire Division had an incentive to question any man who looked as if he should be fighting for his country: a 5 shilling reward for each soldier arrested for being absent without leave.  That could buy a patriotic policeman seventeen pints in the Hare and Hounds.

Sergeant Kelly asked to see William’s pass.  The man from the Somme told the man from Damfield Lane, “Where I am stationed they don’t give you passes”.  Perhaps his traumatised condition was obvious as soon as he spoke.  Kelly asked him to stand up and pull open his coat. When he saw William’s hospital clothes the law enforcement officer knew he would not be receiving a reward – the reward was only for genuine deserters, not hospital patients.

All he could do was charge Jane and Mary Cookson and return William to Moss Side.

Two months after this incident, on August 26th 1916, William Pitchford was honourably discharged from the army.  The Battle of the Somme would continue for another twelve weeks, but William survived the war and eventually died at the age of 88 on May 25th 1959.

Jane and Mary Cookson pleaded innocent when they appeared at the Ormskirk Monthly Sessions, arguing that they had no idea that William was a hospital patient.  The magistrates believed them and dismissed them on payment of the cost of the summons.

Then the learned gentlemen turned their attention to the case of Maria Beckett… as detailed in our next blog post!

Written by John Fay

Edited by Amy Walling, Manchester Metropolitan University

Posted on 30 August 2018 under Moss Side Military Hospital

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